It was a good day to be giving away coats. The air was biting cold and rain dribbled intermittently. On the last day of school before winter break, students at Verde Elementary School would be leaving with a new coat and a present.
The school was running its annual toy and coat drive, an event that’s put together by individuals at churches, public offices, and others in Richmond.
Members of the Davis Chapel left toys and coats at their church. Supervisor John Gioia’s Deputy Chief of Staff Luz Gomez went to JCPenney at midnight on Black Friday to buy as many coats as she could. The employees at the store stretched her funds as far as they would go, adding on an employee’s discount along with the Black Friday price cut.
Gioia’s office started the program in 1999. It began as a drive to give coats to those that needed it most at the school, but over the years, it grew to enough donations for every student.
“Every year, I stress that we won’t have enough,” Gomez said. But she said it’s worked out every time. With 325 students and just as many coats and toys, she said that this year, they might have extras, which they’ll donate.
The students at the school quietly filed into the cafeteria, careful to keep a straight line. They sat on benches and waited for Santa to arrive. Suspense built as the children and teachers called out to Santa. After several beckons, Santa walked in and greeted the children. The woman playing Santa fit the part; she told the children to drink lots of water and get exercise so they don’t end up with a belly like hers, presumably brought on by too many cookies and milk.
Some of the students dressed in their finest. One girl was wearing a shiny pink ballerina dress. Another wore a gown and heels with socks that didn’t quite fit.
Every student was able to sit on Santa’s lap and offer up gift suggestions. Afterward, they received a wrapped present.
Theresa Tailey Wilkerson used to be a student at the school. She was the class of 1955 and now comes back every year to volunteer for the drive.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to present things to kids that are less advantaged,” Wilkerson said.
Originally from Mississippi, Cassandry Keys is a pastor at the Davis Chapel. Standing in a room filled with bags of coats, she said although her hometown is across the country, “the communities are the same.”
Aross the train tracks in the North and East neighborhood, another center for children is collecting toys and other donations. The Early Childhood Mental Health Program is a county-funded clinic that offers free therapy to children with social or behavioral challenges.
The room that holds their toy donations is noticeably bare this year. Executive Director Lynn Martin holds her hand a couple feet above the large conference table to show where the toys used to reach. The table used to be covered and every chair was filled with toys, she said.
This year, the center has received some toy donations, but they take up only about a quarter of the table.
The program’s largest source of donations from the past years came from a department at Chevron. But the main worker who spearheaded the donations left, Lynn said. She learned earlier in the year that the department wouldn’t be organizing the toy drive this time around.
The loss of Chevron’s donations and cutbacks in agencies’ funds have left just a few sources of donations for the center.
“What I was worried about was families I’d seen in the past who I still see. So I had to talk to them about the change,” said one employee who asked that her name not be used in the article. “So they know that they’re going to have to get their things somewhere else if they’re able to.”
Target will be donating $300 worth of toys and one neighborhood council is collecting toys at an annual party.
“It doesn’t go that far, but it’s generous,” Martin said.
Employees that work at the center have begun to directly ask friends and others for any help they can offer.
One employee said she’s never had to ask her friends or family for donations before, but this year, she asked members of her book club if they could donate. Another came across an abundance of children’s clothes at a garage sale, and asked the seller to donate leftovers to the center. The seller did, and the bundles of clothes were soon gone, given away within a few days.
At any given time, the center provides services to about 200 children.
Because the center had fewer donations than usual, “we tried to get our clinicians to identify families who would have nothing,” Martin said.
Therapist Cecilia De Rubira said nearly all the families she sees would fall into that category.
“That’s the issue— that most or many of my families have that struggle. It’s not just one or two,” De Rubira said. She said out of her 12 families, eight of them would need the donation.
De Rubira said mothers have asked her for raincoats because they walk their children to school.
“I can see so much abundance everywhere,” she said. De Rubira moved to the United States eight years ago from Ecuador.
“And that was shocking, as an immigrant, to know that in the States, there are families that live with very low income,” she said.
“This year just feels different,” said therapist Rhonda Lawrence “This recession is still here. And I think we tend to forget that in the Bay Area.”
For the first time, she personally sent out emails to families and friends requesting donations for the center.
But she said she doesn’t feel pity for the families she oversees. “I feel a great sense of honor and respect for the families I work with,” she said.
Lawrence said it’s important to remember that Christmas is about more than toys and material items. For these families—many of whom have inherited several generations of emotional and physical trauma— that “more” that Lawrence talks about is what the center strives to give through therapy and emotional support.
“We’re helping families create Christmas with what they have,” Lawrence said.
To give a donation to the Early Childhood Mental Health Program in Richmond, contact Audra Johnson. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: 510.412.9200.